A young mother who says she was told by her partner's family to give up her unborn baby because there was no room for it has had her toddler taken from her by the courts after she fled to protect the child.
Supporters of the woman are appalled that the Family Court gave the father of the toddler a "without notice" custody order, meaning the woman never got to tell her side of the story before four police officers arrived and took her child.
Such orders are usually only made in cases of domestic violence where there is concern for the safety of the child.
The father persuaded a court that the woman would leave the country with the toddler, even though there was never any attempt to obtain a passport.
The Sunday Star-Times cannot name the parties for legal reasons.
The mother is originally from South America and was adopted by a New Zealand woman after she was abandoned by her parents more than 20 years ago. She has a 15-month-old daughter and is six months pregnant.
The mother and father are in dispute about events leading up to the court order. The father, who is Maori, says the mother had handed over day-to-day care of the child to him because she couldn't cope, and that she wasn't living with him. He claims she "abducted" the girl.
But the mother strenuously denies this, saying she has witnesses who can prove she was living with her partner and his extended family, including uncle, cousins and grandmother, in Auckland while studying. She has correspondence sent to her at the address and friends and relatives visited her there. She says she was a good mother.
The woman says her partner's family had made her write a note to Work and Income saying she wasn't living at the address so that her unemployed partner could claim a domestic purposes benefit. The father denies this.
She says she was bullied and manipulated by the others in the house, and was not allowed to have visitors in case the benefit deception was discovered.
She says the grandmother, who made most of the decisions for the family, told her they could not afford to have another child and she would either have to leave, leaving the toddler behind, or give up the baby when it was born.
"She said there wasn't enough space in the home and my baby was going to one of the cousins in Australia. I felt they were actually attacking me, saying I had to give my baby away. They gave me a week to get out of the house if I wanted to keep it, but I would have to leave my daughter behind."
She says her former partner went along with the plan because he agreed they could not support another child. "They were trying to make me abandon one of my kids. I'm adopted so that is a really difficult decision to make. I decided that's enough. I just took my baby and left."
The father says he has no knowledge of his family ever making such an ultimatum and maintains he was the child's primary caregiver.
The mother says she called Women's Refuge but was told they could not help, so she invented a story about attending a birthday party to get the child out of the house then fled to another part of the country to stay with her mother.
Her mother took her to a local police station to report what had happened, and the child's father was telephoned to inform him of her whereabouts.
The father saw a lawyer and filed an application for a "without notice" interim parenting order, saying in an affadavit he feared for the child's safety and wellbeing and that the mother would take her out of the country if she was notified of the order.
The only evidence he gave of this was that she had talked in the past of visiting relatives in South America. He said the child would be distressed being away from him. The court issued an order preventing the child's removal from the country and, using a warrant, four police officers uplifted the child from the mother while she was at her lawyer's office.
The court has now allowed the woman to see her daughter twice a week for two hours, but she has to be supervised by one of her partner's relatives. It is understood another hearing is due to be held in a couple of weeks, at which the woman hopes to be able to tell her side of the story.
The mother is bewildered by the court's decision and is terrified that she will have to give up her baby when it is born.
"I didn't know something like this could happen, I really don't like New Zealand law right now. In South America, anywhere in the world, they wouldn't take a little kid from her mother without investigating, it's just not right."
The woman's mother, a caregiver, said the court's decision was "horrific" and damaging for the future of the child. "She was trying not to abandon her children and the judge has made her abandon her daughter - that's the way I see it."
She said there was no doubt her daughter was living with her partner in Auckland - she had visited her there.
The woman is receiving support from documentary film-maker Barbara Sumner Burstyn, who met her after the custody order was granted.
Sumner Burstyn said she found the woman credible, but she was also "naive, inarticulate and overwhelmed". "She's someone who's a victim and doesn't have a clue how to fight back. She's terrified they will take the new baby as well. She doesn't know what to do or where to go."
Sumner Burstyn said she found it "bizarre" that a court would take the toddler away from its mother. "If you've got a concern about [leaving the country], surely you remove the passport before the child."
Auckland University family law expert Pauline Tapp says she can't comment on this specific case, but in general "without notice" parenting orders are given only if an applicant persuades the court that serious injury, undue hardship or risk to personal safety of the applicant or child will result.
"It's supposed to be used for emergencies. There's a court of appeal decision that is very strict and says that only in very extreme circumstances should there be without notice orders."
- © Fairfax NZ News